First Drink Tea, Then Save the World–Ratetea.net’s Alex Zorach

May 13, 2010
By


Image courtesy ratetea.net

Delaware-based Alex Zorach is the man behind Ratetea.net, a Web site that allows visitors to talk about tea, and serves as an independent source (i.e., no outside interests shape the content) of information about the ever-burgeoning world of tea drinking.

Alex took some time to talk about tea appreciation, his ambitious plans for the site, and his even more more ambitious plans involving economy-shifting through his other project, Merit Exchange.


Osmosis Online: Is ratetea a business? Hobby? Both? How did it develop?

Alex Zorach: RateTea.net is one of the projects of my business, Merit Exchange LLC.

It developed as a side project out of my interest in tea, and also out of my experience with RateBeer. I have been active on RateBeer for years now, and I love it. One day I had the idea of seeing if there was a similar site for rating tea, and when there wasn’t, I decided to create one. It was relatively easy to program, because at the time I was working on developing the interactive Web site of Merit Exchange, and RateTea.net in comparison is much simpler.

I’ll talk more later about what Merit Exchange is–it’s quite involved–it’s a community economic system designed to promote sustainability and economic justice. To make a long story short, Merit Exchange is an extremely ambitious and challenging project and I
realized that it would take more research, thought, time, and creative energy than I had anticipated. I’ve put in on the back burner for now, but it’s my true life passion, and I’m still thinking about it a lot.

In a sense, RateTea.net is not only a side project, but also a learning project. It’s the largest interactive website that I’ve ever designed that has been fully launched (Merit Exchange is still in semi-private Beta Testing and will likely need to be re-thought and re-worked considerably before launching).

OO: What does the layperson not know about drinking tea? What are some
easy ways to learn to appreciate tea on a higher level?

AZ: I think there are two basic things that most people don’t realize about tea:

(1) how diverse pure tea (unflavored tea) can be
(2) how much better even the most inexpensive loose, unblended (single-region, named variety) teas are as compared to the tea bags available in most supermarkets.

The easiest way to learn to appreciate tea on a higher level is simply to try more tea, and in particular, to start trying loose tea, single-region tea from different regions, trying different varieties of tea, and trying out different brands or tea companies.

Reading about tea is secondary. It’s easier to connect with what you are reading when you have a sense of what the tea tastes like.

OO: Rooibos — you like? Isn’t it not tea in the classic sense? Any
thoughts on “Red Espresso” (I reviewed it a while ago, if you want to
see my take)

I love rooibos and I think it is in a sense more tea-like than other herbal teas. I won’t get into the “is herbal tea tea?” question but if you want my thoughts on it, I wrote a blog post recently.

Rooibos is particularly interesting because, like tea, it is oxidized, turning it red the way tea is made into black tea. Inspired by the production process of green tea, where the leaves are steamed or pan-fired to stop oxidation, people have started making green rooibos too. I absolutely love green rooibos, although I like the red stuff as
well.

I’ve tried (and like) red espresso too, but I think of it as more coffee-like than tea-like…both in terms of its flavor and texture, and how it is prepared. Normal rooibos is steeped like tea, whereas red espresso is prepared with the same equipment used to make espresso coffee.

Also, if you don’t know about it, I’d recommend checking out honeybush–it’s closely related to rooibos, also produced in the same region of South Africa, and also available in both red and green.

OO: How many people have contributed ratings to Ratetea?

AZ: Currently, 109 people have contributed; of these, 28 people have rated 3 or more teas, and 15 have rated 5 or more.

OO: What are your plans for the site at present?

AZ: I’m planning to continue developing the site and adding new features
over the next few months. Where it goes from then will depend on the level of interest in the site. If the site generates a higher level of interest and activity, I will be able to afford to continue to put a lot of time and resources into the continued development of new features of the site–otherwise I’ll still keep maintaining the site, and will probably continue to make small tweaks in the programming and design, but won’t be adding new major features. I’m definitely hoping that interest in the site continues to grow as it has been.

OO: What’s your day job?

AZ:RateTea and Merit Exchange constitute my day job. I do however do other things on the side, including math and computer science tutoring and
statistical consulting.

OO: Any other passions?

AZ: So…my true passion is Merit Exchange…which is hard to describe
briefly. Merit Exchange grew out of my experience living in Cleveland, Ohio for three years. Cleveland is a culturally vibrant but economically depressed city…full of intelligent, dedicated, unemployed and underemployed people. Long before the recent economic crisis hit the rest of the U.S., Cleveland was already suffering (along with other rust-belt cities
like Detroit).

While in Cleveland, I had a lot of jobs and projects that brought me into contact with people from diverse walks of life. I spoke to people on the street, people at professional networking events, people I met through dancing. Fresh out of college, I wanted to experience life. I bought stock in Cleveland-based companies and attended board meetings, I played chess in the ghetto of East Cleveland, and talked to people riding the public buses at 2 a.m..

What I saw was a city that was full of work needing to be done: schools needed teachers, neighborhoods and parks needed maintenance and people to pick up trash, buildings needed plumbing work, electrical work, insulation, HVAC work, roofing. And yet teachers, park workers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, everyone was out of work. There was only one missing ingredient–money. No one had money.

It seems outright madness to me. Why should a city sit idle and fall into ruin? Why would skilled people be sitting around, unable to find work, when the work was all around them? It was at this point in time that I started to realize, long before the big economic crash, that our economic system was essentially broken.

An economy is no more than an information system, a system designed to organize people to work for each other–and it wasn’t working. People were sitting around, idle, depressed, while the city fell apart and peoples’ lives fell apart.

But there were beacons of hope. A lot of people engaged in barter. I started engaging in barter…I bartered my computer skills for credit in a restaurant, private dance lessons, furniture, office supplies, computer equipment, reduced rent on my apartment, temporary office space to work in. I saw people bartering with each other.

But…people use money because it’s easy and convenient, universal…because everyone uses it. Then I started to think–what if people used another system, besides money?

Money seems to create so many bad incentives: (1) it’s essentially untraceable so it can be in crime, and then the person accepting the money ends up working indirectly for a criminal instead of working for someone who worked honestly to help others. (2) It’s hoardable–and can be invested to make more money without working, so people always have an incentive to make money NOW rather than making money LATER. And this creates an incentive for short-term thinking–exploiting other people or the environment. (3) It represents power, not goodwill…so people end up shaping their lives working for people who are powerful, rather than working for people who have done their part to help others (and are thus more deserving of our work).

I started thinking…what if we could create a system that was traceable and based on advertising what you’ve done to the world (think a little bit like eBay or Amazon seller ratings)…then it would be very hard to use the system for crime because everything you do is out in the open. and…what if you could create a currency that was worth more later than now–i.e. it would lose value over time like inflation…this would create an incentive for long-term thinking, protecting the environment and encouraging people to work with communities and people instead of exploiting them. And then…what if one could make a currency that would represent gratitude and goodwill, instead of power? What if people worked first/most for people who had helped others, rather than working mostly for people who are powerful? How much better of a place would the world be if people who dedicated their lives to helping others and helping society as a whole were the ones who were given more power and flexibility, rather than the society we live in, in which people can more easily rise to power by exploiting and stepping on others than by
honest means?

This is what I want to bring into being with Merit Exchange…a new economic system that works better for people. It’s a bit of a crazy idea…but if it wasn’t crazy, would it ever have any possibility of working?

I have two other very important interests to me!

Dancing…especially lindy hop and blues dancing, is one of my favorite things in life. I dance 2-3 times a week, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, here in Delaware, and sometimes when visiting other places. I love it. I’ve found it’s absolutely the best way to meet people, and it’s so much fun and is also great exercise.

I also am a serious birdwatcher…and I am trained in bird counting. I participate in volunteer counts including a heron survey and hawk watch, and whenever I watch birds for fun, I systematically count the birds and record counts and notes, and submit the data to eBird. I love this hobby because it’s something I can constantly work at getting better
at…and it’s something that hones your skills of vision and hearing, while improving your understanding of ecology and also contributing to science–in particular, contributing data that has conservation implications.

OO: What are your goals for Ratetea.net at this point? What’s it have beyond the blogs and sites out there?

The about page currently reads: “The purpose of RateTea.net is to encourage people to develop their appreciation of tea and promote sustainability in the world of tea.”

I think tea blogs are essential in developing people’s appreciation of tea…both for the people reading them and the people writing them. Currently, outside of commercial websites run by tea companies, tea blogs constitute the bulk of tea-related material on the web, and some of them are among the highest-quality sources out there.

There are downsides of blogs, however. In general, they’re not very authoritative as sources of information, both because they are self-published, and because they often consist largely of opinion or personal experience. Often, they’re anonymous or semi-anonymous, even some of the good ones–which makes it hard to cite them as an authoritative source. Blogs regularly circulate and pass on misinformation and conflicting information. This is true even of some blogs of people who are regarded as experts in their field. Blogs can often have hidden relationships to tea companies…while it’s sometimes possible to verify that such a relationship exists, it can be hard to establish solidly that one does not.

Another downside of blogs is that because there are so many of them and each is one person, having information be located in the blogosphere essentially means that if you do a search on one topic, you find dozens of different posts pertaining to that topic, from different people, on different dates, offering often conflicting perspectives.

This is great if you want to spend an afternoon researching that topic, but it’s not so good if you want a quick, relatively accurate overview of that topic.

I’m hoping RateTea.net can become a centralized, authoritative source for information about tea. I want it to be THE place people go to when they want accurate, impartial information a particular variety of tea, a tea company, or a tea-producing region. I’m also hoping it can establish a stronger reputation for quality of information, citing the source of information (especially in the case of health-related info).

Here’s where the sustainability part comes in. I saw a niche that was
available–before I launched RateTea.net there was no website that came close to filling this role–and I wanted to jump in it before someone else did, someone else who might have a different sort of agenda. I also think there’s a problem when the main sources of information in an industry are controlled by a company in that industry. The situation with tea on the web is already a little bit like this–Adagio Teas is one company with a major web presence (TeaChat, TeaMuse, TeaCritic, TeaChef, TeaMap, in addition to their own website). As much as I love Adagio (and haven’t seen them do anything remotely shady), I don’t like the idea of a tea company even being in a position to control the flow of information on the web.

An important aspect of RateTea.net is that we not only do not sell tea, but we only use third-party ad networks–we do not have any affiliate links on our website. Our tea and brand pages link directly to company and product pages and we receive no compensation for this! This is very important because we have given up a major source of income in the interest of being impartial.

Many tea blogs have affiliate links, and I don’t know about Steepster…but it features specials on tea and teaware, and it seems reasonably that it has some sort of income associated with these specials.

The tea industry has its ugly sides. Human rights and environmental issues plague much tea production. Some tea companies are doing their part to alleviate these problems, but many are not, and among those taking on these questions, some are doing more than others. Tea, like many other industries, is a business in which the lion’s share of profits fall to blenders and retailers in the U.S. and other wealthy developed countries…pickers and even plantation owners get a negligible share of the wealth.

I want to use RateTea.net as a platform to prod tea companies to move more towards sustainability…and to guide tea drinkers to make buying decisions that promote human rights and environmental sustainability.


We’d like to thank Alex for his time, and definitely recommend readers check out ratetea.net and Merit Exchange. For some particularly interesting reading, check out ratetea.net’s articles page

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3 Responses to First Drink Tea, Then Save the World–Ratetea.net’s Alex Zorach

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RateTea.net. RateTea.net said: RateTea.net is featured (with some talk of @MeritExchange) on @OsmosisOnline …some interesting ?'s here: http://bit.ly/cFnrxi […]

  2. Gingko on May 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

    This is great! I am glad to read this and learn more about ratetea.net and its creator! One more question, Alex, do you plan to add forum/discussion board on your website? Although most online tea forums are rather small, I do notice that online forums may help attract viewers.

  3. Alex Zorach / RateTea.net on May 15, 2010 at 6:02 am

    For now I am focusing on other features. There are already a number of other tea sites with active forums or discussion components (TeaChat, Steepster, Teaviews, Leafbox, not to mention most tea blogs). I wanted to create something genuinely new, rather than competing with existing sites.

    If there’s enough demand from users in the long-run though, I can definitely see adding forums.

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